David Murray & Black Saint Quartet featuring Cassandra Wilson
Recorded at Peter Karl Studios, Brooklyn, NYC, USA Oct 20 & 21, 2006
Mixed at Peter Karl Studios, Brooklyn, NYC, USA Feb 22/23/24, 2007
Mastered at SNB Mastering, Montreal, Canada
David Murray has been collaborating in one way or another with poet, novelist, and cultural critic Ishmael Reed (co-founder of the Before Columbus Foundation) since 1980. They have worked on Reed's three Conjure recordings as well as his For All We Know CD. Sacred Ground is a Murray date, recorded for his now longtime label Justin Time, performed with his brilliant Black Saint Quartet that includes drummer Andrew Cyrille, bassist Ray Drummond, and pianist Lafayette Gilchist (who replaced the late John Hicks). Murray had scored the soundtrack for Marco Williams' brilliant film Banished, about the dozen or so American counties in the South and Midwest that expelled - often violently - thousands of blacks between Reconstruction and the Great Depression. Murray's appetite for investigation (which has always been enormous anyway) was whetted and he continued his own independent thinking and research. He asked Reed to participate in the project by writing poems for Cassandra Wilson to sing. Those two songs bookend this set. Murray's tune "Banished" is here, as is music that he extrapolated upon apart from the film. Murray is a more than prolific artist, having recorded upwards of 100 albums in his career thus far, and has been part of at least another 150. Saying that Sacred Ground is one of his most satisfying and deeply expressive offerings is risky, but it's also true. For starters, there's the band. The Black Saint Quartet have been together long enough to understand one another intimately. As a composer, Murray writes to the strengths of each player and creates bridges for members to speak to one another both inside and outside his compositions. Then there's Wilson, who sings with such understated yet unmistakable authority here. Her restraint and trademark phrasing is a tribute to her discipline, to allow words to speak for themselves and to bring out only their hidden meanings. Yet here, on the title track, it is she who gets stretched, too. Reed's words carry within them both anger and resignation, journalistic acumen, and deep cultural commentary, without once falling into the obvious.
Murray's opening blues phraseology extends into balladry almost right off, giving a long chorus before Wilson enters: "We come back to claim/Our deepest legacy/ We've come back to claim, our very/To you, they're just a box full of bones/But to us, they're our loved ones/Who shouldn't be left alone/You took everything from us, but now we're home/The spirit of our people/Shouldn't sleep alone/Banished from your towns, filled with hate/You thought you destroyed us, and sealed our fate/We survived...." The one thing absent in Reed's words is disbelief. When Wilson finishes her verse and Murray leads the group into modal dissonance - underscored by the arco playing of Drummond and the ostinati of Gilchrist, Wilson moans in both assent and in pain before the tune changes tempo and key, moving toward something nearly Afro-Cuban. Stunning. The tune is nearly nine minutes long and goes by in a flash. The set is moving, from the post-bop extensions of "Transitions" to the midtempo ballad cum improvisational "Pierce City" to the glorious title tune to "Banished," on which Murray pulls out his bass clarinet and gets inside the entire history of the music as if to express that, even with the passage of time, certain topics remain forbidden history in America. The glorious long ballad "Believe in Love" is textured in rhumba and tarantella overtones. "Family Reunion" is pure soul-jazz for the 21st century. It swings, pops, jumps, and then extends the notion to the breaking point into new terrain. The shuffling beat is grist for the mill as Murray's solo quotes everyone from W.C. Handy to Stevie Wonder in his solo.
The set closes on Wilson's other number, "The Prophet of Doom," which begins its nearly 11-and-a-half-minute run as a blues over a chorus or two before Wilson begins: "My name is Cassandra/daughter of Hecuba/Priestess of Athena/Student of Apollo/Sister of Paris/They call me 'prophet of doom'...." Reed wrote the poem by looking into Greek mythology for parallels between the singer and the goddess she is named for. He found a few, though those are not found in the opening verse. The band continues its blues stroll as Wilson digs in with streetwise humor and sass: "Apollo took me to school/But I taught him a thing or two/Never think that because you 're a god/That every girl'll put out for you/He must have thought I was an easy nymph/Someone he could seduce and pimp." The band takes delight in the loose form, with Cyrille playing to accent the backbeats and Gilchrist filling the lines with big extrapolated chords, offering an extended harmonic palette for a simple blues. Murray doesn't reenter the tune until nearly halfway through and begins his slippery yet knotty solo. He builds on those poignant accents of Gilchrist's and digs deep into the bass walk by Drummond, who does some filling of his own with chords and extra-note runs. The tempo changes and twists and turns and the band swings the blues hard before Wilson returns, opening room for a piano solo and then again to take it out. Sacred Ground is a journey in time, space, and sound, one rooted in all the lineages, and yet it is a further benchmark of Murray's own decidedly marked place within it, even as it points both forward and back - just like Reed's writing and Wilson's singing.
All Music Guide
========= from the cover ==========
David Murray - Black Saint Quartet featuring Cassandra Wilson
David Murray was playing the piano when I first met him. It was 1974, at a party in Malibu. I commented that David played a mean piano. It was a compliment. At the time, I didn't know how much we had in common, until I moved to Oakland and had a glimpse of the kind of working class community where David spent his formative years. This is where he studied with his mother Catherine Murray, an organist.
He grew up in Berkeley, but his roots were in Oakland and mine in another blue collar town, Buffalo, New York, I think that we have both survived because we don't succumb to flattery and are driven to continually find new material. It's the difference between some of the members of Cab Calloway's band who coasted along, clinging to the status quo and enjoying the good life that Cab provided for them, and a restless Dizzy Gillespie, who defied Cab by joining jam sessions that Cab had declared off limits. Gillespie was always making it new. Listening to new sounds. Expanding the limits of chords and scales.
David could have remained in New York. Been dependent upon major record labels framing his career. But he sustained his career by performing on little known labels. There are few musicians of any stripe who are as prolific as he. With 220 albums under his belt to date, he is a logical successor to the Titans, John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. And when I interviewed Sonny a couple of months ago, I could tell that one of the last survivors of that movement that changed American music had been keeping up with his disciple.
It is written in Blaise Makossa's biography of David Murray (2000) that "At the end of the 90s he has been frequently associated with fusion, world music, even pan- Africanism, reflecting his journey back through time from the West Indies to the Central American islands, via South Africa and Senegal." He's played with Cecil Taylor, Dewey Redman, Anthony Braxton, Mai Waldron, Pharoah Sanders, Don Cherry, Lester Bowie, Jerry Garcia, Max Roach, Randy Weston and Elvin Jones. In 1976, the legendary World Saxophone Quartet came into being. It consisted of Oliver Lake, Harriet Bluiett, Julius Hemphill and David. David could have remained in New York City, wallowed in fame and the good life as a survivor of New York's cutthroat arts scene where only one minority at a time can make their way uptown, usually the one who doesn't present a threat to the ruling class's art circles. One who is a "conservative" or devoted to mimicry. A town where you have to be willing to step over your own grandmother to become a black Diva or Divus.
But he knew that those who controlled the pathways to success would never concede to what they consider impudence. Ask yourself why Sonny Rollins can be honored by the King of Denmark, but not in his own country. Why John A. Williams never received a Pulitzer Prize. Why Joe Overstreet isn't a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, why someone can rate Gerry Mulligan (whose music I enjoy!) over Harry Carney or Stan Getz (I'm a fan) over Lester Young, one of whose solos Getz studied for fifteen years, and why The New York Times credited Chet Baker with a style invented by Miles Davis. David Murray did what I had to do when left as literary road kill by the current special interest groups. I became a world-class writer. He became a world-class musician.
His French affiliations have provided him with some independence so that he can create everything from music for quartets, full ensembles, to the writing of an ambitious score based upon the life of Pushkin.
At that Malibu meeting, nobody could predict that David and I would enter a collaboration that would span twenty-five years. It began when producer Kip Hanrahan sent some composers some of my poems and songs from a book entitled Conjure. We've produced three Conjure albums, the latest of which is Bad Mouth Conjure. We've toured Europe a few times and performed in Japan in 2004.1 got a chance to try out my Japanese before a Blue Note audience.
Collaborating with David means you're always surprised. During our 1993 Conjure tour, he asked me to write something for an instrumental.
I turned out a piece overnight, called "Bahia, and he performed it in Mainz the next evening. (We were lucky to get to Mainz. The person who had our train tickets missed the train. David got on the phone and called ahead and told the person at the next stop our predicament. He gave instructions in German.)
I got a huge surprise last Christmas when Valerie Malot wrote and asked me to write something for Cassandra Wilson. I was 68 and all I could think of was "Wow," like some zit afflicted adolescent. This was the singer who won a 1996 Grammy for her album "New Moon Daughter." Someone who was equally at home with the avant-garde, Lawrence "Butch" Morris as well as with Hank Williams. 5 This was a Jazz performer whose work had been referred to as "breaking boundaries," by the critics. And so David, Cassandra and I have been associated with innovation; we are adverse to complacency.
I'd have to come up with something to match the artistry of Ms. Wilson. This caused me considerable anxiety and I went through a number of espressos, my remaining vice. The name Cassandra got stuck in my mind. I went back to the Greek myths and found that the Greek Cassandra had a lot in common with what we call the black experience. She was a slave. She was a prophet. She was subjected to sexual exploitation. She had hair issues.
Members of the "American mainstream," often call blacks "paranoid" when they discuss the subtle and not so subtle aggression aimed at them in everyday Life. They didn't believe Cassandra either. She was a Greek myth with an attitude. My mother, a seer, says that the deceased visit her at 4 in the morning. That's about the time that lines for poems begin to come to me. By the next morning I was writing the first draft of "The Prophet of Doom." Part of David's oeuvre is looking forward and looking backwards. For example, on Sacred Ground, he and the other members of his quartet send up a tango, "Believe In Love," a rhythm that both Jelly Roll Morton and W.C. Handy employed. With "The Prophet of Doom," I was looking back. Way back.
David also sent me a film about the banishment of thousands of American blacks from their homes between 1890 and 1930. This was the inspiration for the songs, "Sacred Ground," and "Banished." David's music and my words show how the lyric sometimes overcomes the barriers of the subtle forms of censorship that exist in the United States. The information that thousands of blacks were banished from townsin the South and Midwest was deemed so uncomfortable that the reporter, Elliot Jaspin, complained about The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's handling of the story. He said that the paper "bowdlerized" his work lest their white subscribers got angry. Though American intellectuals and the media criticize this European country or that one for covering up their collaboration with the Nazis, and at the present time, criticize Japan for hiding its World War II role, there are episodes in American history which the Establishment wishes to suppress. But as Long as we have committed artists like Cassandra Wilson and David Murray, who are not merely entertainers, the hidden corners of American history will be inspected. Aired.
In "Banished," the lament carried by David's bass clarinet tells the whole story of the banished whether they be the United States' homeless or the refugees in Darfur. Currently, there is a debate about the toxic lyrics of Gangsta Rap. But the truth is that the Establishment prefers the distraction of Gangsta Rap to the kind of message sent out by Sacred Ground, which refers to the atrocities that have happened here. David came to my house with a film crew and we actually worked on both pieces while Jacques Goldstein filmed us. We used some of the music on my CD, For All We Know,on which David plays tenor, bass clarinet and piano. Shifting the scores around, we did a practice run of "The Prophet of Doom," the song for Cassandra and thanks to Jacques and another miracle of the Internet hundreds could see the music evolve from the laboratory phase in Berkeley's Whip Studios to David's refining the score on the plane. And finally Cassandra's recording in the New York studio (www.myspace.com/davidmurraymusic) She wrapped herself around the song. She channeled Cassandra.